Opinion: The War on Drugs Got It Wrong

February 14, 2020
Austin Chronicle

When I was arrested for my first drug offense, I was 19 years old. The War on Drugs told elected officials that Black people like me were the villains of the story and needed to be locked away in the name of public safety. Along with millions across the country, I was deemed disposable. For the next 20 years, I couldn't find a job or find a place to live in, and I panicked every time I was pulled over for fear that once again that disposable label would be placed on my forehead.

Today I celebrate my life as a partner, parent, son, brother, colleague, and friend in successful recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness. I do not owe my recovery to the criminal justice system; locking me in a cage harmed me and drove me further away from wellness. My recovery was made possible thanks to an amazing support network of friends and family dedicated to my best interests. As a formerly incarcerated Black man with behavioral health diagnoses, my success is a statistical anomaly – but it doesn't have to be. When we stop investing in systems of policing and punishment, we make space to create alternatives that promote wellness and healing for everyone.

Earlier this month, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic released a preliminary key findings report. The report finds that – in a city that systematically pushes Black people out of Austin and dwindled the population to just over 9% – Black people constitute over a third of all drug arrests. Half of the arrests resulted from minor traffic stops like driving with an expired registration or failure to signal. Half of possession of controlled substance cases directly related to medical or mental health crises, resulting in jail time of up to two years, delaying or denying the immediate need to respond to medical and mental health needs.